See the Story Index for a chronological guide to all the stories.
Jamilah shook her head in wonderment. In 2002, when Hassan had been released from prison, she’d still been in high school. And yet Hassan had been been through so much already by that time. She wondered if he could ever truly relate to her on a personal level. Does he see me as an equal, she wondered? Or am I a child to him?
“What happened to my namesake?”Jamilah said. “To Jamil? Do you know?”
Hassan nodded. “I heard through the grapevine that he’s in a low security facility in Fort Worth.”
“You mean he’s still locked up?”
“What grapevine?” Muhammad asked.
“Ex-cons I’ve run into. You know Asante from the masjid?”
“Mm, yeah,” Layth said. “Built like a linebacker.”
Hassan nodded. “He was in El Reno. I’ve met others at the Oakland masjid and even on the street. I saw Cutter living in a homeless encampment in China Basin. He looked like a junkie. I rode by and he didn’t recognize me. I just kept going.”
“When will Jamil get out?” Jamilah asked.
“Allahu a’lam,” Hassan said. “Maybe never. He killed two men during a drug deal when he was eighteen, before he became Muslim. He has a life sentence.”
“Oh.” Jamilah felt her heart sink. “That doesn’t seem fair. Don’t they take into account that he’s a different person now?”
“Jamil would disagree with you about it not being fair,” Hasan said. “He’d say that he took two human lives and that there’s never a day when he’s not conscious of that, and that ‘fair’ does not always apply in this dunya, and that the dunya is a prison for the believer in any case, so what’s one prison inside another? And he would say that in the end it’s in Allah’s hands, and Allah will do what He wills. When Allah wants Jamil out, he’ll be out.”
“I see why you wanted us to know about him,” Layth said.
“He was a second father to me,” Hassan said. “The day I got out he hugged me and said, ‘Remember, Allah is with you out there, just like He was with you in here. He cares about you. You have a purpose. Find it. When you’re out of ideas, ask Allah.’
I needed to hear that, because I had no life plan beyond finding whatever my father had left for me, if indeed he had left anything at all.
I arrived at the San Francisco airport and immediately caught a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles. I still wore the clothes I’d been arrested in – they’d been returned to me on my release – and they didn’t fit. I’d packed on seventy pounds of muscle in prison. My legs were tree trunks and my shoulders were bowling balls.”
“You look like that now,” Muhammad said.
“No, I was bigger then. Seven years of lifting weights will do that. My pants were about to split, and my shirt was stretched across my chest. But I didn’t care.
On the bus, a man kept talking to himself, muttering about a yellow cat and how it was following him. Other passengers glanced at him in surreptitious concern, while others ignored him. As for me, I didn’t care.
In the seat in front of me, a baby cried. The mother sang a lullaby, but he continued bawling. I didn’t care.
The bus was air conditioned and grew chilly, but again, I didn’t care. None of that mattered. I was dazed, feeling like the world was a waking dream.
America itself – the land of my idyllic, if strange childhood – had seemed like a dream for so long. America was a distant memory of a land of ketchup, banana splits and building sand castles on the beach while Charlie tried to knock them down. A land of family. And of course, a land of imprisonment.
And now here I was, free to go and do as I wished. It didn’t seem real. I had a deep fear that it was literally a dream, and that I would wake up in my cramped cell in El Reno, hearing the six a.m. work alarm and the pounding of prisoners’ boots on the steel tiers outside. And if this wasn’t a dream, then surely the FBI would realize they had been duped, and that I was not in fact Hassan Amir. Any moment they would stop the bus and drag me off. They’d send me back to Turkey, where I would find myself once again in… that place.
The mother in front of me put her baby on her shoulder and patted him on the back, trying to burp him. He settled his big blue eyes on me and stopped crying. He regarded me, I imagined, with the same wonder with which I regarded him. I had not seen a baby in years. I’d forgotten how their eyes could be cherubic yet wise at the same time.
The baby gazed at me with a hint of a smile – I might have imagined it – and if anything his eyes grew larger, radiating wonder and total acceptance. Had my eyes ever been so guileless?
I looked into those big eyes, wide and deep as oceans, and he looked into mine, and the moment stretched into what seemed like minutes. Adults will meet your eyes for a moment then look away, but this baby held my gaze with innocent boldness. I began to feel that I was looking into his soul and he into mine. Would my inner reality frighten him?
As he continued to stare into my eyes, I had the feeling – for a moment – that we were one person, and I could hear his thoughts.
“You’re free,” is what I imagined him thinking. “It’s real. No one is coming after you. It’s a dream only because the dunya itself is a dream. Allah is with you here, in this bus. He will not abandon you.”
In that moment I loved that infant, because he was everything good in the world. He was hope and joy. He was the hunger to learn and experience every new thing.
Then the baby let out a loud burp and stuck his fist in his mouth. He broke the contact between us, focusing with great interest on the experience of sucking his own hand.
I was free. Not only free, but free in America, the land of my childhood. I felt a surge of joy like an ocean current, and I laughed. Some of the passengers glanced at me worriedly. Between me and the ‘good one’ guy, they must have feared they’d boarded a bus full of loonies.
As soon as I arrived in L.A. I walked into a clothing store and bought new jeans and a t-shirt, and gave my old clothes to a homeless teenager who sat on the corner at Seventh Street with a black puppy in his lap.
There I stood, on a street corner in Los Angeles, with less than $100 left in my pocket, no job and no home. But I’d known where I was going when I got on the bus. There was only one person I could go to – my father’s old friend, B.”
Muhammad opened his mouth to say something and Hassan cut him off with a wave.
“I know what you’re going to say,” Hassan said. “And yes I do trust you all. But it’s one thing to talk about people who are dead or gone. This person is alive and I have to protect him. It’s safer to be discreet. So he will remain simply B.
B’s son had been my childhood friend, and I’d visited their house many times as a child. I didn’t know if B was alive or dead, or if he still lived in the same place, and if he did whether I could find the house. From the Greyhound station I took a city bus and got lost in Echo Park, which was not only the wrong neighborhood but the wrong city. You can’t imagine how big Los Angeles is if you’ve never been there. It’s a huge conglomeration of cities, all running into each other. I was down to eighty dollars in my pocket but I decided to spend a portion on a cab.
I directed the cabbie in vague terms to the area where I had grown up. As we came near, I recognized a shopping center and the outline of an iconic white factory that had been old when I was a kid. I gripped the headrest of the seat in front of me until I felt my heartbeat in my fingers.
I could have directed the cabbie to my old house, but I resisted the temptation and instead directed him to B’s house.
I recognized the house immediately, though the trees bordering the street were larger, and the sidewalk was cracked from roots pushing up. The shrubbery in the front yard was overgrown, and the grass was rife with weeds. It had never been like that in the past.
B answered the door himself. He’d lost the hair atop his head, and the fringe was white. His face was lined and his jowls sagged. He’d gained so much weight that his belly looked like a beach ball under his shirt. But it was him.
“If you’re here to offer yard service,” he said, “I’m not hiring.”
Though he had changed physically, his voice was the same. I was so relieved to see him that I could not speak. Emotion choked my throat and I merely shook my head.
“Oh,” he said. “What then? Pool service? The newspaper? Speak up.”
I thought I saw the beginnings of fear on his face. I guessed that perhaps my size was intimidating. I made an effort and found my voice. “It’s good to see you Ammu,” I said.
He relaxed visibly and tipped his head back to look down his nose at me, as if trying to peer through a pair of bifocals.
“Are you one of my son’s friends?”
I nodded my head and smiled. “An old friend. Do you remember Simon?”
B’s face drained of blood and he reached out to catch himself from falling. I caught him under the arms and he stared into my eyes from only inches away. His face showed disbelief and wonder.
“Are you Simon Ibrahim?” he whispered. “How can that be?”
I’d known he would be surprised, but I was puzzled by the extremity of his reaction.
“Yes Ammu,” I said. “It’s a long story, but my name is Hassan now. I’m Muslim. And I know that my name was never truly Simon Ibrahim.”
B recovered some of his strength and detached himself from me. His bald pate was beaded with sweat.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “Forgive my reaction. I simply never expected to see you again. I didn’t even know if you had survived the Lebanese civil war.”
He took me inside and I told him all that had transpired. He was shocked at what I had been through, and stunned at the revelation that Boulos Haddad had ordered the death of my father, then tried to kill me. When I was done he clasped my hand and said, “I will help you in every way I can. Don’t worry. You are not on your own.”
I was touched by that. I could never go home again, but this was the next best thing. My joy was short lived, however, as B informed me that his son – my old friend – had been stricken with a degenerative disease. He’d lost the use of his legs and much of his fine motor control with his hands.
I shared with B my belief that my father had hidden something for me. He was excited by the news. He wanted to plan a course of action to get to whatever my father had hidden, but I told him firmly that I didn’t want to involve him in something that might be illegal.
I did accept a loan. B gave me five thousand dollars to get by until I found a job. I rented a room for a weekly rate at a cheap motel called the Bluebell, a half mile from my old house. Then I bought a used bicycle at a local shop.
I avoided my old house. I intended to scout it eventually, but my priority was finding employment. I wanted something under the table, because I didn’t want my name and address on file with the IRS, the Social Security Agency or any other government agency. There was no immediate threat. But I wanted to stay off the books.
I visited a few landscaping services, looking for work, but I recognized right away that those companies were fully staffed with Mexican illegals who were paid illegally low wages. I wouldn’t get anything there. I also tried an ice cream truck company and a few restaurants, to no avail.
In the meantime, I tried to establish my identity as Hassan Amir. Even though I didn’t want to be employed on the books, I intended to secure my hold on my new identity. I applied for a copy of ‘my’ birth certificate and received it. For my address, I gave a post office box that I had rented. It was one of those P.O. boxes that masquerades as a real street address – suite such-and-such. I took a written test at the Department of Motor Vehicles and was granted a temporary driving permit. Then I applied for my driver’s license and was given an appointment for a driving exam.
Four days after I moved into the Bluebell I went out at night for a 7-11 chocolate run and passed a dance club called Slim’s. It had always been closed when I passed it during the day, but was apparently hopping at night. There was a line of people a half a block long, waiting to get in.
The lone doorman – a heavyset black man in a leather coat and sunglasses (worn more for the look than the weather, I supposed) – had his hands full trying to deal with four drunken young men who were beefing about not being allowed in. I soon came to realize, by the way, that sunglasses are an L.A. trademark. Everyone wears them, day and night, if not on their eyes then on the tops of their heads, or dangling around their necks. Old ladies go around with expensive shades buried in beehive haircuts.
The young men at the door shouted and cursed the doorman. One of them stepped forward and tried to shoulder his way through. When the doorman grabbed his neck and pulled him back, the young man swung at him. As the doorman tried to subdue the troublemaker, the other troublemakers pushed forward and joined the melee.
Some of the women in line screamed. The velvet rope delineating the line was knocked over, and people surged into the club without paying.
I’ve never liked seeing a group of cowards ganging up on one person. I parked my bike against the wall, ran forward and waded in. In seconds I’d pulled the young men off the doorman and thrown them to the ground, then blocked the door with my body to prevent any more freeloaders from entering.
The troublemakers walked away, nursing their bruises and cursing, as the doorman rose to his feet and brushed the dust from his leather coat.
“Thanks, man,” he said. “I’m Lenny.”
“I’m Johnny Deluca,” I said.
Muhammad laughed. “You’re a trip, Hassan,” he said. “Like a spy novel.”
Jamilah didn’t think it was so funny. When someone lied constantly, how were others expected to believe him?
“Why didn’t you give your real name?” Jamilah said. “You were out of prison, free and clear. Why keep on lying?”
Hassan sighed. “Be patient, Jamilah. I think you’ll understand.
Lenny told me that the club was short-staffed and that I should go upstairs and talk to Rocky, the manager, about a job. “You sure got what it takes,” he said. “Tell Rocky I gave you a thumbs up.”
I thought about it. A dance club was not the ideal place of employment for a Muslim. But what was? Grocery stores sold liquor, fast food places served pork, financial institutions dealt in ribaa… How picky could I be? Plus, I’d heard that club work was usually under the table, which was exactly what I wanted. And I would only be managing the crowds at the door, not tending bar. It would do for now, at least.
Rocky was a muscular white guy in a black t-shirt that stretched across his massive chest and shoulders. His sunlamp-bronzed skin glistened in contrast to his tousled blonde hair. I was sure that some people would take him for just another artificial L.A. stereotype, but he had an easy smile and relaxed demeanor that I found appealing. His second floor office was fronted by a one-way mirror that looked down onto the club floor.
He looked me up and down. “You got the size. Good look, too. Can you handle yourself?”
I nodded my head. “The only thing I do well,” I said.
“You know any jokes?” Rocky asked.
I racked my mind, trying to remember a joke. I wasn’t good at jokes. Suddenly I remembered Jelly, one of the Muslim brothers from El Reno. A young brother from Kansas City, Kansas. He used to tell jokes all the time. Like you Muhammad, if you were a former drug dealer with cornrows. I pictured the scene in my head. We’re sitting around on the bandstand after Maghreb, swatting at mosquitoes. We’re finished with our sunnah and dhikr. Jelly pipes up and starts to tell a joke.
With that memory clear in my mind, I began to narrate the joke as I remembered it:
“This homie is struttin’ on the beach,” I said, “and he find a magic lamp. Rub it and a genie -”
“Why are you talking that way?” Rocky interrupted.
I frowned. “What way?”
“Like you’re channeling Eddie Murphy.”
“I… It’s a long story.”
“Huh. Well, maybe jokes aren’t your thing. That’s alright. Can you start tonight? Lenny could use some backup on the door.”
Ten minutes later I was working the door at Slim’s.
“Hold on,” Muhammad said. “Was it the joke about the guy who wished for all the ladies to love him, and the genie turned him into a chocolate bar?”
Hassan snorted. “No. It was the one where – “
“You brothers do realize,” Kadija said, “that all these genie jokes are essentially about people bargaining with the jinn, which is a major sin?”
Jamilah rolled her eyes. It was one thirty in the morning, Hassan had been shot and still hadn’t told them why, they were finally reaching the end of the entire saga and everyone wanted to talk about jokes. She was about to let loose with a small tirade, but Hassan waved off Kadija’s comment and continued.
I was ready to scout my old house. I bicycled to an internet and print shop where I designed a flyer and printed twenty copies. I purchased a roll of masking tape and a small notebook in which I would record whatever activity I observed in the neighborhood. All of that went in a backpack. Then I rode to the house.
When I reached my old street, I began taping flyers to each telephone pole, on both sides of the street.
I intended to be discreet, but as I approached I slowed, and finally stopped at the driveway, in the exact spot where – so long ago – our family car had exploded and burned with my mother in it. I could see the differently colored cement where the crater in the driveway had been patched. I remembered the stink of urine, the smell of ANFO. More than anything, that smell had stayed with me. Recalling it now made me grimace.
There had been leaves everywhere, I remembered, knocked from the trees by the blast. Or was that something I had seen in Beirut, later? I’d seen so many car bomb scenes, so many mangled bodies, so much destruction…
I looked up at the trees. The leaves were all there. The young oak tree that had bordered the driveway was huge now, shading half the street. Why were there no signs of the explosion? Did trees heal over, or did they scar? I didn’t know.
Hardly knowing what I was doing, I dropped my bicycle on the driveway and stood, looking at the patched cement. I had spent so many years trying to forget that day, but now the memory returned in full force. The explosion that threw me across the room. My father, blood trickling from his ear. The explosion must have burst his eardrum. He must have been in terrible pain. I’d never thought about that before.
I looked up at the house, half expecting to see some sign of the damage. But of course it was in perfect condition. I saw now that it had been rebuilt differently. When I was a child the house had been yellow and white, with a front porch and an overhanging roof – California bungalow style, my mother called it. Now the house was a reddish brown color like dried blood, and the front door was recessed behind a locked gate. All the windows were barred, though they featured colorful flower boxes – perhaps in an attempt to soften the harshness of the bars.
Most significantly, the garage had been rebuilt as a detached cottage with its own front door and chimney. The cottage too had barred windows and stickers on the windows advertising a security company’s services.
I stepped onto the front lawn, which was neatly tended and bordered with succulents and clover. This was the spot where my father had been shot. I looked down, half expecting to see faded bloodstains on the green grass. But of course those events had happened long ago.
I thought about it. In reality, those terrible events had occurred fifteen and a half years ago. And yet in that time I had lived five lifetimes, it seemed.
I sank to my knees on the lawn and buried my fingers in the moist grass. I was aware on some level that I was being anything but discreet. My plan had been stupid. Ride past the house and observe? After so many years, as if nothing had happened? But this awareness felt distant and unimportant. My mind felt sluggish, as if my thoughts had been dipped in tar.
“What are you doing here? What do you want?”
I opened my eyes to see a a petite, thirty-something brunette standing before me, holding a sharp looking kitchen knife and pointing it at me menacingly. She looked frightened and angry.
I cleared my throat and tried to clear my mind as well.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’ve been looking for my dog Jasper and just needed to rest.”
Still on my knees, I took one of the flyers from my backpack and handed it to her.
“Have you seen him?” I asked. “I need to find him.”
I didn’t feel good about lying to the woman. I was aware that I was playing on her sympathies and manipulating her. But what else could I do? It wasn’t like I could say, “You know that car bomb that half-wrecked this neighborhood sixteen years ago? Well, that was my family, and I believe my father buried something beneath your garage, and I need to dig up the floor.”
The woman took the flyer, which depicted a cute cocker spaniel puppy with sad eyes, and the words, “Lost Dog,” along with a description of my imaginary pet and an offer of reward.
The woman’s eyes softened and she regarded me sympathetically. “I’m – I’m sorry,” she said. She made a motion as if to put the knife in her pocket, then thought better of it and looked around as if searching for somewhere to put it. Finally she simply kept it in her hand and looked at me.
“It’s just that we had two attempted break-ins recently,” she said. She waved the knife in the direction of the cottage. “Someone tried to get in our cottage. I don’t know why. There’s nothing of value. Just an old TV and some books.”
“I apologize for sitting on your lawn,” I said, rising slowly, brushing my hands off on my jeans and zipping my backpack closed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just felt very tired all of a sudden.” That was true enough. I felt as if I had run a marathon.
“Don’t worry about it,” the woman said. “I’m not normally so looney tunes.”
“You have to be safe in this crazy world,” I said.
Jamilah had a question on the tip of her tongue. There was an obvious deduction that Hassan had ignored completely. But she decided to hold her peace for the moment and let him continue.
“I had an idea,” Hassan continued.
“Listen,” I said. “Can I ask you something? I moved here from Oklahoma. I’m staying at the Bluebell Motel down the road, and I work security at Slim’s, do you know it?”
The woman laughed. “My club days are past. I’m married.”
“The thing is, I’m looking for a place to live. The Bluebell doesn’t allow pets. I’m always worried they’ll find out about Jasper. Assuming I find him.”
“I’m sure you’ll find him,” the woman said.
“Your cottage would be perfect. It’s close to my work, and I could pay you a decent rent. Jasper’s quiet and he doesn’t shed. Plus, I work security. Maybe having me around would prevent break-ins.”
The woman glanced back at the cottage. “Well,” she said. “It has been empty for a while. We built it for my brother when he was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away three years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “That’s rough.”
She nodded and made a motion as if to brush her hair from her face, then remembered the knife and stopped. “Especially for the kids. Listen, let me talk to my husband and I’ll let you know.” She looked at the flyer. “Is this your number?”
“Actually, that’s the number at Slim’s. I don’t have a phone. Can I just come by tomorrow?”
“Sure. I’m Holly. I’d shake your hand, but…” She held the knife up.
“I’m Johnny,” I said.
When I returned the next day, Holly invited me in and served a cold soda. She informed me that her husband had agreed to rent me the cottage. He was a clothing designer who made frequent business trips to the Far East, and was sometimes gone for a month or more.
“He’s been worried,” Holly said. “Especially since the break-ins. I think he’s relieved that I’ll have someone responsible on the property. You are responsible, aren’t you?”
“Yes ma’am,” I said. “You can call my employer if you like.”
She shook her head. “I can tell you’re alright. I’m good that way. And what’s this ma’am business? I’m practically your age.”
I didn’t know whether to feel good or bad about renting the cottage. It would be hard seeing this place every day. All the memories. Riding my bike over this driveway would be like rubbing my heart on a cheese grater.
To make matters worse, I had a sense that Holly was interested in me on more than a landlord-tenant level. It had been a long time since I’d felt the touch of a woman, and this was a temptation I didn’t need.
On the other hand, living in the cottage meant I’d be able to search for whatever my father had left. The cottage sat directly on the location of the old garage, most likely on the original foundation.
I paid the first month’s rent and deposit and moved in immediately.
The first thing I noticed was the hardwood flooring. The cottage consisted of a single large room with a small bathroom in the rear corner. It didn’t have a proper kitchen – just a formica countertop with a sink, hotplate and microwave, and a mini fridge stashed beneath the counter. But it was nicely furnished. Thick hand-woven rugs softened the floor. It was furnished with a plush green sofa and loveseat, a small kitchen table with two antique-looking chairs, an ornate reading desk, and a single bed with a reading lamp mounted on the headboard.
To me it was a mansion. Compared to the six by twelve foot prison cells that I had shared with one and sometimes two men, the cottage was a slice of heaven.
Holly was a musician with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and on the days when she attended rehearsal I had peace and quiet, and could work undisturbed.
When she was home, however, she knocked on my door two or three times a day. At first she tried to get me to drink with her – she was a serious wine drinker – but when that didn’t work she started bringing me lemonade or cookies. Instead of letting her in, I’d sit on the front stoop and chat for a few minutes, then excuse myself. I felt sorry for her. Her husband was away most of the time, and the two kids – whose names were Viola and Oboe, and I’m not making that up – were in daycare during the day. But it wasn’t my problem.
When I started prying up the floorboards, Holly was there in a flash, asking curiously about the noise, and trying to peek past me into the cottage. Fortunately I’d anticipated this problem. I had purchased a punching bag and hung it from the exposed rafters in the ceiling. I pointed it out to Holly and explained that I practiced punches, kicks and stick strikes on the bag, and that it could be loud.
“I make plenty of noise when I practice,” Holly said, touching my hand. “We’ll have to learn to ignore each other.”
I began the process of moving the furniture and rugs from place to place, removing floorboards in sections, and inspecting the exposed cement carefully. From the faded oil stains and occasional gouges, it was clear that the floor was still the original cement from the garage. I didn’t see any point in digging it up. That would be difficult, loud and time-consuming, not to mention impossible to hide.
Also, I assumed that whatever my father had hidden was something he would want to retrieve at a later date, which meant that it had to be accessible.
Each time I completed a section I replaced the floorboards. I laid down the builder’s felt, nailed the boards back in place using the original nail holes, and covered the nail heads with wood putty. When the putty was dry I replaced the furniture or rug that had covered that spot.
I often heard Holly practicing music in the main house. One afternoon the music became discordant and wild, then stopped. Shortly afterward she came to my door crying while I was in the middle of removing a section of flooring. I covered the spot with a rug, exited the cottage and pulled the door shut behind me. Holly threw herself into my arms, sobbing, and I had to pry her loose. Her breath reeked of alcohol.
“Have you found Jasper?” she asked. “Are you still looking?”
“Still looking,” I lied, “but I’ve almost given up hope.”
Holly wiped her eyes and smiled suggestively. “I could comfort you,” she said. “Or just keep you company. I’m having a rotten day. We’re doing a piece by Mahler next month and I can’t get my part right. Can’t I just come in and watch while you practice or whatever you do?”
Of course I refused and sent her away. She didn’t like that. I could see in her face that my lack of receptiveness was becoming a problem. I didn’t have much time left to do what I needed to do.
Sure enough, she came to see me the next day, her face tight with anger.
“This isn’t working out,” she said. “You’re not the friendly type of person that I thought.”
I reminded her that I had paid for a month in advance and that I had a right to stay for the full month.
“Fine,” she said. “But when the month is over, I want you out.”
The days raced by. I worked a ten-hour shift at the club every night, and between sleeping and meals, I had only a few hours each day to work on the search. What if whatever I sought was beneath the kitchen counter, the shower or the toilet? I’d never find it.
With a week remaining on my month’s rent, I went to see my father’s friend B. He was the only person I trusted. I updated him on my search and lack of success so far.
“I’ll hire a crew tomorrow,” he said as brewed a mug of tea. “We’ll tear out the floor and jackhammer the foundation if necessary.”
I shook my head. “That would attract attention. And I don’t want you getting in trouble if anything goes wrong. I can handle it.”
“Then handle it,” he snapped. I looked at him in surprise and he apologized. “I only want what’s best for you,” he said. “I feel terrible about how difficult your life has been, all you’ve been through. I should have helped you somehow.”
I stood and gripped his shoulder reassuringly. “None of it was your fault. You couldn’t have known what the future held. You’re helping me now, and that’s plenty.”
Four days passed without success. Time was running out. That afternoon, Holly showed up at my door yet again. She had a small bandage on her upper lip, and held a CD in her hand. I could smell the wine on her breath. She extended the CD.
“I burned some songs for you,” she said. “A workout routine. I thought we could patch things up.”
“What happened?” I asked, indicating her lip. I wondered if she had banged her mouth on a door and cut it.
Holly’s frowned. “Just a cold sore,” she said. “No big deal. Can I come in? We can listen to the CD together.”
“I’m sorry Holly, but I -”
“Is it the cold sore?” Her face turned red with anger. “It’s not my fault that my bastard husband gave me herpes. I know he picked it up from some foreign whore. I’m not good enough for you, is that it?”
“It’s not that, it’s just – “
“Three days!” She shouted. “Then you’d better be out or I’m calling the sheriff! And I don’t believe you even have a dog!” She threw the CD at me and it bounced off my chest, the case breaking open when it fell to the ground. Then she stormed off.
An hour later there was another knock. Feeling resigned, I opened the door, only to find two police officers, with Holly standing close behind them, trying to push through.
One of the officers, a Hispanic female, turned to Holly. “Ma’am, I told you to stay inside.”.
The other, a young white man, addressed me. “Miss Holly Porter here says you assaulted her and tried to rape her.”
I stared at him. “That’s not true, officer.” I explained that Holly frequently came to my door drunk, wanting to be admitted, and would get angry when I refused. The officer nodded his head, as if he’d half expected to hear that. I had no doubt that he could smell the liquor on her breath. The two officers declined to file a report, and left.
“Cowards!” Holly screamed after them. “I pay your salaries!”
I shut the door and locked it. This was turning into a nightmare. How could people live like this? I knew that not all non-Muslims were so out of control, but I had the bad luck to live next to a alcoholic stalker. Still, thank God for Islam.
I felt sorry for Holly, but she wasn’t my problem. I only had three days left on my lease. I had to find whatever my father had hidden, now.
I found it the next morning.
I had removed a section of flooring near the rear wall. I noticed a very fine line in the cement, outlining a square about two feet on a side. In the center of this square, two bolt holes were drilled into the cement. There wasn’t anything overtly suspicious about it. It merely looked as if something had been bolted to the floor at some point in the past. A workbench, perhaps, or a tool of some kind. I vaguely recalled that my parents had had a deep chest freezer on this spot.
I shined a flashlight down into the bolt holes. In each hole there was a small steel eyehook, about two inches down. The bolt holes were too narrow even for my fingers. I would need a specialized tool. During the war I’d sometimes had to jury-rig repairs to rusting equipment and to the barracks themselves. Though we’d had a small engineering corps, they mostly tended to the needs of the leadership and high-ranking officers.
I didn’t have to jury-rig anything. At an auto parts store I found a chain with an s-hook attached to each end, used for towing. I hammered the s-hooks flat so that they would fit into the bolt holes. I’m sure my father had had a more elegant way of removing the cement block. But mine would work, I thought.
I draped the chain over my shoulders, fitted the s-hooks into the eyehooks, squatted down, gripped the strap and lifted with my legs. In prison I’d been able to squat 485 pounds. I don’t know how much this cement block weighed, but it was heavy. The chain dug painfully into my upper back. But it worked, and the cement block slowly came up out of the ground. With a tremendous effort I managed to lift it above floor level and set it to the side.
How on earth had my father moved the block? Even he and my mother would not have been able to lift it together. My father’s leg had been lame, after all. Perhaps he’d built a makeshift pulley of some kind…
Inside the hole was a steel combination safe, laid on its back so that the door faced up. I stared at it. There really was something here, after all. I hadn’t been at all sure there would be. After all these years, I was looking at something that my own father had hidden. He’d probably not hidden it specifically for me, but still, it was a piece of my father’s life, sitting here underground for sixteen years.
How was I going to open the safe without the combination? I had to vacate this cottage the next day. Could I simply lift it out and take it with me? I studied it from all angles. Small, engraved letters at the bottom of the door identified it as an “Ultrasafe Fire Safe 3000”. The safe was deep chested, with thick steel walls, and fit snugly into the hole. It must weigh hundreds of pounds, even more than the cement slab. There was no way I’d lift it out without equipment, and even then I’d have to jackhammer the floor around it. My father must have hired a construction team to build this hole and lower the safe into it.
Maybe I could blow the safe open? No. I had some limited experience with explosives, but not enough for a job like this, and where would I get explosives anyway?
I had to figure out the combination, and I had to do it by tomorrow. Because the safe lay on its back with the door facing up, I would not have to remove it at all if I could just get the combination right.
I sat on the floor, still breathing deeply from the effort of hoisting the cement block. I laid down on the floor and closed my eyes. The combination could be anything. And I had no idea how many digits the combination contained, or how many times to spin the wheel. Tomorrow morning I’d see what I could learn. With great effort I lowered the cement slab back in place, restored the floorboards, threw a rug over the spot, and moved the loveseat over it.
I rode my bike to a payphone the next day, ready with a pocket full of quarters. First I called directory assistance and requested the number for Ultrasafe Corp, which was based in Toledo, as it turned out.
I didn’t need my quarters. Ultrasafe had a toll-free customer service line. I was transferred to a chipper-sounding woman named Bettina, who seemed ecstatic at the opportunity to help me. I explained that I had an Ultrasafe 3000 and that I vaguely remembered the combination, but that I’d forgotten which directions to turn the wheel.
“It’s called a dial,” Bettina corrected me. “What’s the serial number?”
Fortunately I had thought to jot it down and I rattled off the numbers.
“Oldie but a goodie!” Bettina said. “It’s easy. You’ll note that the dial displays from zero to ninety nine. All you have to do is spin four times left to the first number, three times right to the second, two times left to the third, then one time right to zero. Note that I said to each number, not past. You’d be amazed how many people get that wrong. And there is no such thing as clearing the lock by spinning the dial. That’s a myth, like Bigfoot, you know? Speaking of, I’d be in hiding too, if people called me Bigfoot. Heavens alive, the wheels inside the lock are already out of position – that’s technical talk. I’m not a technician but I’ve learned over the years. Spinning the dial does nothing.”
I think she would have gone on all morning if I hadn’t thanked her and hung up.
Back at the cottage, I moved the chair and rug, gritted my teeth and hoisted the cement block again. My legs were getting a workout, and I already had a long blue bruise across my neck and traps from last night’s effort. I had no choice, however.
I looked at the safe. Three numbers, anywhere from one to ninety nine. I said Bismillah and spun the dial, turning left to the day of my birth, right to the month, left to the year, then right to zero.
Nothing happened. That was vanity, I supposed. I tried Charlie’s birthday, then my mother’s and father’s birthdays in turn, though I wasn’t 100% sure of the year in my parents’ cases. I tried the house number, one digit at a time. That would have been too obvious. Then I tried variations of all the above, for example using one digit for the month and then two; and two digits for the year and then four. I tried putting my ear to the dial and listening like I’d seen in the movies, but all I heard was the rasp of my own breath.
Frustrated, I paced the floor. Every time I passed the heavy bag, I hit it. I was out of ideas.
I remembered something Jamil used to say. “When you’re out of ideas, ask Allah.”
I went to the bathroom and performed wudu’. As I did, I felt myself growing calm, as if the water were washing away my anxiety.
I laid my musalla on the floor. It was the very same musalla that Jamil had given me seven years ago. It was homemade – made by one of the brothers Jamil had known at Leavenworth – and depicted a small masjid with a dome and minaret. I prayed ‘Ishaa, trying to clear my mind of all worldly thoughts, focusing only on the words that I spoke, and on my presence before Allah.
When my prayer was complete I raised my hands in dua’. I spoke to Allah in my own words, asking Him to help me open the safe, not because I needed any money that might be inside. I had considered that possibility but I didn’t care about it. What was more important to me was that it was from my father. A piece of his life. And maybe something from my mother as well.
As I thought about my mother and father together, I remembered a day when I’d been eight years old, before my mom and dad split up temporarily. Charlie and I had surprised the two of them with breakfast in bed for their anniversary. Between the two of us we’d managed to mess up the entire kitchen in order to produce a dish of scrambled eggs with pepper and cinnamon – Charlie insisted that cinnamon made everything better – along with whole pickles and fresh-squeezed orange juice. We’d picked the oranges from Mr. Niemeyer’s tree across the street, and used twenty oranges to make two glasses of juice.
Their anniversary. We’d all celebrated it, every year. October 30, 1974. It was easy to remember, because it was the day before Halloween, and the year before I was born. A day for our parents, then a day for us kids.
I was right this time. I could feel it.
I went to the safe, said a quick dua’, and kneeled beside it. I breathed on my fingers like the safecrackers I’d seen in the movies, and tried 10 left, spinning the dial four times. 30 right, spinning three times. 74 left, spinning two times. Then right to the zero.
With bated breath, I pulled on the lever beside the dial.
Nothing. It wouldn’t budge. I let out my breath in a huff. I stared at the safe. I was sure I was right. You know the famous hadith qudsi from Nawawi’s forty, the one about drawing near to Allah? Allah said, and I’m paraphrasing, that one draws near to Allah through the required worship and extra good deeds, until Allah loves him. When that happens, Allah becomes his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks. If this servant asks for something, Allah grants it, and if he seeks refuge, Allah gives it.
That was how I felt in that moment. Allah had given me the answer and was guiding me, moving my hand on the dial. There was only some little detail that I was missing…
Aha! I remembered that outside of the USA, the month is often listed after the day. I tried again. 30 left, 10 right, 74 left, and right to zero. I heard a tiny click. I gripped the lever and pulled.
The safe opened, and I stared at the contents in wonder.
Of Dreams and Shadows
A short story
By Saulat Pervez
Tears streaming down her face and her lips moving fervently in supplication, the lady’s terrified face spoke volumes. Watching the lady, she realized how closely this woman was viewing death. She herself always considered someone passing away as a reminder, casting a shadow on her consciousness, making her hyperaware of the transience of life, but the darkness would dissipate as the hours passed by, overtaken by the urgent demands of the mundane. For this woman, however, death was no longer an abstract concept: she stood mesmerized by the fear gripping the woman who could see herself being carried off in a coffin very soon.
That night, she wrote in her journal,
We often ask one another what we want to do with our lives, but rarely think about our own deaths. Perhaps it’s time for us to work backwards. Let death be the starting point and then find purpose in our lives – knowing that no matter how old/young we are, or whether we have a prognosis hanging over our heads or not, death is right around the corner. In our zeal to accomplish everything we want, are we cognizant of the fact that anytime our life can come to an end? Too often, there’s a disconnect and death – despite its certainty – comes as a surprise. Instead, I want to think about the person I want to be at the time of my death and then figure out everything I need to do to be that person.
“So, how were the latest test results?”
“Not good. Her kidneys are getting worse, and now the liver is affected too.”
“And, how old did you say she was?”
“Oh, so she’s old,” she casually said, shifting her eyes to the computer screen.
He realized it was the end of that conversation and looked at his notes for the tasks to be accomplished for the day, pushing his ill aunt in a faraway country from his thoughts. Lurking in his mind, though, was the question: Can we decide when it’s okay for someone to die? To say that they have spent enough time in this world?
“Anything new today?” she asked.
He lay there, staring into space. A grandchild sat some distance away, a coffee cup next to her. From the window, he could see the hospital next door. Somehow, it looked really flimsy in his slanted gaze, as if the slightest jolt would crumble it into a miserable heap. His glance returned to the coffee cup for a fleeting second. He could taste the mocha latte in his mouth, but felt no appetite for it at that moment. His granddaughter looked up from her phone and caught his eye. “Would you like anything, Nana?” she asked, leaning forward.
He shook his head quietly and felt his son’s hand slip into his with a squeeze. He looked around the room and saw his family spread out before him, standing, sitting on the sofa handle, slouching on a couch, reading, whispering, praying. He felt a sudden burst of love. He closed his eyes and saw the words that he was thinking: Am I ready to leave all this? He winced before sleep mercifully overtook him.
Her husband had been in a coma for only two days but the doctors were already recommending that he should be taken off the ventilator. His brain had been damaged – his heart had stopped beating for a couple of minutes before the paramedics had managed to revive it. His organs had started failing soon after the heart attack.
She was horrified. How could she take such a huge decision? Wouldn’t she be ending his life if she agreed to pull the plug? What if he woke up in the next minute, day, week…? Taking his life was not a decision for her. She would refuse.
The doctors told her that she was only prolonging his pain. Let him go. But, to her, he didn’t look like he was in pain. And she wondered if they had ulterior motives – did they want to give his bed to someone else? Was he costing the insurance provider a fortune? Did they want to salvage whatever organs that remained intact? All sorts of thoughts kept plaguing her. Oh God, why are you putting me through this? She held her head in her hands.
She sat next to him. His heart was beating, he was breathing. She knew that if they removed him from the respirator, he would deteriorate very quickly. To her, the machine was keeping him alive and they wanted to take it away. But, then, a thought crept up to her: Had his soul already left his body? Was he even alive?
She remembered reading somewhere that a baby’s heart starts beating within the first few weeks in the womb. But her faith taught her that the soul isn’t breathed into the baby until the 12th week. So, technically, the heart could be beating without any soul. She let this sink in. The conflicting thoughts in her mind gradually grew quiet.
She looked at her husband and decided to listen to the doctors. I will let his life take its course. If he is meant to live, then he will survive, somehow.
Their house had an eerie silence, casting long shadows on everything it touched. Unless they were fighting, which happened quite a lot lately. It always began with whispered fury, as if their son was still living in the next room, but would escalate inevitably into a crescendo that would topple the silence into smithereens. Followed by a lot of sobbing and slammed doors. It was their way of mourning their only child, who had left them as suddenly as he had entered their lives.
She didn’t think she had any maternal skills, but she knew how much he wanted a baby, and she had eventually given in. She would always remember the day she birthed him as the day a mother was born. He soon became their sun, their world revolving around his every need and want, years passing by. Of course, in her eyes, her husband was never as careful as he should be around him. And, to him, she was too overprotective and needed to lighten up. As he became a young man, though, the three had formed an endearing friendship and life seemed perfect.
It would’ve been an ordinary day in their mundane lives had tragedy not struck and snatched their grown child away senselessly. In the aftermath, they both found themselves standing on the edge of a precipice, their bodies weighed down by grief and blame. And then the letter arrived, yanking them back onto safe space.
It began with, “In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things; who created death and life to test you [people] and reveal which of you does best––He is the Mighty, the Forgiving; who created the seven heavens, one above the other. You will not see any flaw in what the Lord of Mercy creates. Look again! Can you see any flaw? Look again! And again! Your sight will turn back to you, weak and defeated” (Qur’an, 67:1-4).
Written by a mutual friend who was thousands of miles away, it amazingly acknowledged their pain and anger while reminding them that neither could’ve changed the fate of their son. It exposed their raw feelings towards each other and demanded that they not let this tragedy cause further damage by pulling away from each other. That, in this time of unspeakable loss, they need each other the most. It spoke of life and death as something far larger than them, and nothing they could’ve done would’ve saved their son. At the same time, it encouraged them to invest their energies into causes that would prevent others from suffering like they were. And, it ended with, “Say, ‘Only what God has decreed will happen to us. He is our Master: let the believers put their trust in God’” (9:51).
They didn’t know how many times they read the letter and when they curled their arms around each other, tears flowing. And that’s when their long, torturous journey toward healing finally began. Together.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon, to God we belong and to Him we return. She couldn’t believe the news: Was he really gone? As much as she wanted to deny it, she had to accept the reality. A sudden gloom settled in her. The distance killed her. She knew she wouldn’t be able to go for the funeral. Worse, she felt guilty for not visiting. She should’ve known, she should’ve gone.
She went about her day like a zombie. She was physically present, but mentally and emotionally, she felt completely numb. Flashes from her childhood kept distracting her. He had always loved her like his daughter. As she began imagining family and friends gathering to console the immediate family and prepare for the funeral, she felt lonely – tinged with poignant nostalgia, the detachment made the loss more pronounced, compounding her sorrow. She lost her appetite and everything around her became dull. Instead, she hungrily sought every detail around his death. She messaged ten people at once and waited anxiously for the responses. As they began pouring in, she began to cry, utterly desolate.
Through the layers of grief and loss, a voice managed to speak: Is this about him or you? She was caught off guard. She realized that she was so self-absorbed that she hadn’t even prayed for him. She started murmuring supplications, asking for his forgiveness and peace. She reached for the Qur’an and opened it to Surah Ya-Sin and began reciting. The lyrical verses gradually soothed her. Her mind began to fill with his smiling face and the happy moments they had spent together. She suddenly understood that what mattered most was the time they had shared when he was alive – the ways in which she was there for him, the things he had done for her.
It isn’t about him or me. It’s about us.
“What is the procedure for inducing here? How long after the due date do you wait?”
“We don’t wait. If you aren’t in labor by your due date, we schedule you.”
“Oh. My other two babies arrived late—”
“Why can’t we find the baby’s heartbeat?” The doctor said to herself as she walked over and took the device from the nurse, pressing and moving it firmly on her swollen belly.
She woke up in a sweat. This is how the dream always ended. Except each time the setting was different. Tonight, they were in a massive kitchen with the doctor and the nurse in crisp, white aprons; the device was a shiny spatula and she was lying flat on a counter.
Instinctively, her hand stroked her stomach, now flattened. In the bleak light, she looked at the empty corner where the crib had stood not too long ago and she wept, consumed with longing. For the umpteenth time, she asked herself, When was the last time I felt the baby kick? She could honestly not remember. The night before, she had been up late, worrying and waiting for her husband to come home from work. During the day, her toddler kids had kept her occupied until it was time to rush for the doctor’s appointment. She had just started her ninth month.
The truth of the matter was that she had never thought anything would go wrong. After all, her other pregnancies had been entirely normal and natural. She had stayed active and agile until it was time to go to the hospital. So, what happened? No one knew. There was a heartbeat, and then there wasn’t. If only I had sensed that something was wrong. What kind of mother am I?
Flashbacks, flashbacks, and yet more flashbacks. She was riddled with flashbacks lately. It’s incredible how suddenly the entire stage can be reset. One moment you have something and the next, it’s gone – and you’re left looking at your emptiness shocked with wonder: how did it happen? Just like that, life ends or a catastrophe strikes, and colors everything a different shade.
As she wallowed in her sorrow, she was yanked out yet again by the same verse: Not a leaf moves without His knowledge. She shook her head, amazed by the simple phrase that sprinkled her conversations so casually: insha’Allah, if God wills. She would say it and yet expect certain outcomes. This time, when He had other plans, it hit her with such force that she felt completely dwarfed.
She sighed. She whispered quietly, inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon.
She got up and went to check on her kids. As she kissed them and sat by them, she reminded herself: You are an amanah, a trust, from God. I do not own you. And I am ever so grateful that He has given you to me. I promise to take care of you. But, ultimately, we all return to Him, for every soul must taste death.
She returned to bed, taking refuge in this moment of comfort, knowing full well how elusive it was. But it’s what kept her afloat and she held on to it dearly.
Saulat Pervez has come of age, both as a child and an adult, between Pakistan and the United States. She has taught English Literature in Karachi, worked remotely for Why Islam, a project of the Islamic Circle of North America, and is currently an Associate Researcher at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Virginia.
As a result of her diverse encounters here and abroad, and grounded in her experiences in teaching, writing, and research, she is committed to investigating ways to cultivate reading, writing, and thinking cultures both locally and globally, especially in multilingual contexts.
Saulat has been writing stories since she was a newly arrived immigrant and middle schooler in Central Jersey. Most of her adult life, however, was spent writing journalistic pieces and website content, with a few children’s books published in Pakistan. She has also mentored six teenagers in the writing of a collaborative murder mystery, Shades of Prey, which is available on Amazon.com.
This particular short story — made up of discrete yet connected pieces — has been a labor of love which she hopes the reader will find intriguing and thought-provoking. Much like her life, it has been written between places, with snatches of time both at home and during travel.
To Decorate Or Not To Decorate – Is That The Ramadan Question?
As Ramadan approaches and we prepare our hearts and homes, decor brings meaningful reflection.
As a Muslim born and raised in America, I strongly believe in making my religious holidays feel as special and magical as non-Islamic mainstream American holidays. The broader American culture and society that I grew up in definitely informs this conviction as well as my love of crafting and decorating.
However, I have noticed a troubling trend on my social media that reminds me of some of my favorite scenes from the year 2000 film How the Grinch Stole Christmas (when Martha May’s light-affixing gun and Cindy Lou Hoo’s mom causing a traffic accident after stealing a traffic light for her home’s Christmas decorating). All the Facebook groups with a bunch of strangers posting about their decorating and activities has really led me to ask–to decorate or not to decorate for Ramadan and Eid?
Well, that’s not really the question! It’s a lot more nuanced than that, which leads me to the real questions I want to ask myself and all of us–why to decorate or not, how to decorate or not, and what are the ramifications of decorating or not.
Why Decorate or not to Decorate
There is a complex cultural issue here for Muslims living in America. What are the many cultures we identify with and how do they interact with each other? I identify as a Pakistani-American Muslim and I also feel a strong pull towards the other hyphenated-American and international Muslim communities and the histories of the Ummah around the world. Which cultures do we identify with and how and why do they signify and mark upcoming festivities and holidays? These two questions are essential for us to ask ourselves when we consider why we choose to decorate, or not, during a special time like Ramadan or a holiday like Eid.
But one reason a person should never decorate is that they feel pressured into it because of those around them or other social or cultural factors. Just because our social media feeds are blowing up with cute and amazing Ramadan decor or the local halal meat store has some Eid decor for sale does NOT mean that we should feel like we need to decorate ourselves. It is so easy for us to feel pressured into doing things because we “see” (or think we see from others’ projections of their lives on social media) all of these people we know doing them. Truthfully it sounds so simple when we talk about teenagers feeling peer pressure at school or with friends, but do we actually consider the types of peer pressure we experience as adults in our cyber-lives? (And we have not even talked about advertising posts from different companies or small business owners, and these can sometimes be from friends who are affiliated with certain companies or products.)
Yes, it’s great to share ideas and get inspired from many different sources, but when it crosses the line from inspiration to feelings of guilt or compulsion or from fun to serious jealous competition it is dangerous and compromises our happiness, mental and emotional health, and spirituality. These decor posts are so decontextualized because we really don’t know the details of everyone’s lives, but we still get intimate glimpses into their personal spaces. It doesn’t matter that every Muslim mom is making an advent calendar for their kids or that the one Instagram posting-enthusiast built a miniature masjid in their living room. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that people generally engage in hanging up wreaths or sprinkling confetti on the dinner table as a cultural norm if we don’t understand the use of it, are uninterested in doing so, or have some sort of convictions against it.
The other issue I have with feeling compelled to decorate is when it seems like a piece of Ramadan or Eid worship that is mandatory or given a higher priority than other mandatory acts of worship. What other people do in their spiritual lives or their worship regiment is none of our business and nothing we should be concerned about generally speaking. There could be a friend or two we have a close mentoring relationship with, and in that special case, we might share details of our spiritual lives with them. But now let’s think about something as trivial as decorating the home for Ramadan–is it really something any of us should take so seriously in a comparative way? If the whole point of decorating for Ramadan is getting ourselves and our families in the “Ramadan spirit” or to be excited about celebrating Eid, then isn’t it an act of worship with the right intentionality? So if we go around comparing our acts of worship to others,’ is that something our Prophet or scholars have advised us to do in any way?
Sure, it is very easy to compare my decor with someone else’s because it is something with an obvious outward manifestation (just like I can compare my modest clothing practices to another woman’s.) But is it healthy or good in any way? And just as a final note–if our decorating is causing us to commit sins, like missing prayers or being rude or unkind to family members, or overshadows other Ramadan preparations for mandatory worship, like getting in some practice fasts or seeking medical attention for health issues related to fasting, we really have our priorities wrong.
How to Decorate or not to Decorate
It’s common sense that we should have a set of considerations for anything we do, and I want to bring a high level of intentionality to this issue, even though it may seem trivial. Now is a great time to air these considerations out as the American Muslim community (and generally Muslims living in the West) is embracing the practice of decorating for Ramadan and Eid at the moment.
The crux of this issue is simple to me: if we are treating decorating for Ramadan as a voluntary act of worship, what are the conditions that should be met for God to accept this deed? Basic religious principles such as prioritizing obligatory acts of worship over voluntary or simply permissible ones, not violating anyone’s rights or hurting others, etc. should be part of the considerations, as well as practical logistical issues.
The reason why I think it’s important to be mindful about decorating is because I fear this phenomenon will become shallow and meaningless very quickly in our lives, and if we want decorating to be part of our Ramadan/Eid worship we should be as thoughtful about it as other acts of worship.
- Budget. How much money do I have to put aside for a non-essential expense? Am I justified in spending money on a non-essential expense if I have debts, loans, or other financial obligations? Should I use the money for another cause, like donating to a charity? Am I going into debt to fund this project or engaging in a questionable activity religiously to finance any purchases? For my means and lifestyle, would any of these expenses be considered israf or unnecessary/over-the-top?
- Effort and Ability. How much effort and time do I want to spend myself or expect my family to invest in order to achieve the end result? Do I or others in my family enjoy doing stuff like this, or is it going to be a miserable task which will actually make me and others feel stressed out or have negative feelings about Eid or Ramadan? Am I taking too much time from obligations (mandatory prayer, mandatory fasting, spending time at work looking up decorating ideas instead of working, etc.) or from other good opportunities (taking care of family members, visiting the sick, exercising or getting healthy amounts of sleep, reading Quran, etc.)?
- Ethical Concerns. What types of items will I purchase to decorate with and what is the background of how they were manufactured (environmental impact, sweatshop factory, funding oppression, one-time use or going to be kept for decorating for multiple years, etc.)? Would God be happy with the purchase I made based on how it was created?
The Ramifications of Decorating or not Decorating
So, a family has decided to decorate! The next question is–how do we interact with our decorating after it’s been completed? There are two relevant areas here: inside the home/for the direct intended audience and outside the home/for a broader audience.
It is important to remember that these efforts were undertaken for the people inside the home who are in fact the ones meant to benefit from these decorations and festive atmosphere. I’m not sure how others interact with their decorating efforts, but limiting the engagement to simply passive or highly useful actions seems to make the most sense to me. For example,
- Useful: an item with the supplication for breaking the fast written on it and having one family member read the supplication out-loud before everyone breaks their fasts
- Not useful and cumbersome: setting an elaborate tablescape with decorations every night which make eating difficult
- Neutral: spending a minute turning on decorative lights near nightfall for a festive feel
- Passive: spending half an hour hanging up a sign and a few paper lanterns somewhere visible and just leaving them for the remainder or Ramadan and/or Eid.
I think knowing what will be useful or neutral or annoying falls into common sense and knowing which type of person you are–someone who needs to restrain themselves or someone who could push themselves a bit more to be more enthusiastic–will help us easily decide what to do.
Another thing to keep in mind is evaluating the effectiveness of your decor once or twice during Ramadan (or Eid). Is what we’ve done in our home distracting from or counterproductive to mandatory or highly recommended acts of worship? (Such as only turning on decorative lights and candles so that a family member who wants to read from the Quran does not have enough light to read.)
Are the efforts we’ve put together so demanding that they are squeezing us in detrimental ways? (Such as setting the table in a specific way causes us to delay our fast-breaking or a family member’s lack of willingness to participate is causing tension in the household.) We often evaluate how our diets or hydrating plans are working for our energy levels in Ramadan and how our commitment to prayers and other acts of worship are influencing our spirituality or sleep schedules, and I think extending an evaluation (maybe just a quick one) to our decorating set-up is worthwhile. Is what I’ve done to my home actually of any benefit to me and my loved ones at this sacred time? That’s a question we need to ask ourselves.
Divine Decor: Worshipping Through Decorating
The other area–the indirect audience outside of the home–is one that I think mostly has to do with the idea of publicizing our good deeds to each other and/or showing off. If we have all agreed to the underlying premise that decorating for Ramadan or Eid is an act of worship that we’d love to be rewarded for from God, then we can compare this action with other similar actions (such as praying or helping an injured animal). If I find a large stone in the middle of a walkway and decide to remove it, should I go around and tell people what I did for the rest of the day? If I generally am regular in my prayers and visit a mosque to perform one, should I make my prayer longer than normal to seem more pious or connected to God because I’m no longer alone? If I am feeling charitable, should I broadcast a live video on a social media platform and show those I know how much I am donating to a certain cause? No, of course not. We know that publicizing our good deeds can ruin our good intentions and compromise any act’s validity in the eyes of God. We also know that this can go a little further and compromise the integrity of our spiritual state by encouraging us to develop spiritual diseases, such as becoming arrogant or unnecessarily competitive for material things.
And this is exactly where I find a conundrum in showing off our decor for broader audiences outside of the home–is our act of worship still sincere, will our good deed still be accepted, and is our spiritual state still pure? I’m not even beginning to broach the topic of social media usage in general and what are healthy ways to interact with it–I’m simply concerned with keeping any good deed we might be engaging in a “good” deed after all.
The Prophet ﷺ said, “He who lets the people hear of his good deeds intentionally, to win their praise, Allah will let the people know his real intention (on the Day of Resurrection), and he who does good things in public to show off and win the praise of the people, Allah will disclose his real intention (and humiliate him).حَدَّثَنَا مُسَدَّدٌ، حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى، عَنْ سُفْيَانَ، حَدَّثَنِي سَلَمَةُ بْنُ كُهَيْلٍ،. وَحَدَّثَنَا أَبُو نُعَيْمٍ، حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ، عَنْ سَلَمَةَ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ جُنْدَبًا، يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَلَمْ أَسْمَعْ أَحَدًا يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم غَيْرَهُ فَدَنَوْتُ مِنْهُ فَسَمِعْتُهُ يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم “ مَنْ سَمَّعَ سَمَّعَ اللَّهُ بِهِ، وَمَنْ يُرَائِي يُرَائِي اللَّهُ بِهِ ”.
We’re generally encouraged to keep our good deeds secret and private and inviting a non-intended audience into our homes with pictures and videos seems to go directly against that principle. There is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated our homes with others in an encouraging way to them that does not push us towards a culture of unhealthy peer pressure or competition, just like there is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated in a way that does not compromise the validity of our potentially good and rewardable deed. (We’ll leave decorating for Ramadan or Eid parties for another day.)
How to Teach Your Kids About Easter
Don’t tell my dad this, but growing up, I was sure I wanted to be a Christian. It had nothing to do with the theology though, it was – really and truly – all about the chocolate.
Don’t tell my dad this, but growing up, I was sure I wanted to be a Christian. It had nothing to do with the theology though, it was – really and truly – all about the chocolate.
Don’t get me wrong, I did not grow up in any sort of conservative, chocolate-deprived bubble. My mother was – and still is – a Christian. My father was – and still is – Muslim, and our home was a place where two faiths co-existed in unapologetic splendor.
My mother put up her Christmas tree every year. We children, though Muslim, received Easter baskets every year. The only reason why I wished I was Christian too, even though I had no less chocolate in my life than other children my age, was because of the confusing guilt that I felt around holiday time.
I knew that the holidays were my mother’s, and we participated to honor and respect her, not to honor and respect what she celebrated. As a child though, I really didn’t understand why we couldn’t celebrate them too, even if it was just for the chocolate.
As an adult I’ve learned that I’m not alone in this conflicted enthusiasm for the holidays of others. Really, who doesn’t like treats and parties and any excuse to celebrate? As a parent though, I’ve decided that the best policy to use with my children is respectful honesty about where we stand with regard to other religions.
That’s why when my children asked me about Easter, this is what I told them:
- The holidays of every religion are the right of the people who follow them. They are as precious to them as Eid and Ramadan are to us.
- Part of being a good Muslim is protecting the rights of everyone around us, no matter what their religion is. There is nothing wrong with non-Muslims celebrating their religious non-Muslim holidays.
- We don’t need to pretend they’re not happening. Respectful recognition of the rights of others is part of our religion and our history. We don’t have to accept what other people celebrate in order to be respectful of their celebrations.
- The problem with Muslims celebrating non-Muslim religious holidays is that we simply don’t believe them to be true.
So when it comes to Easter specifically, we break it down to its smaller elements.
There is nothing wrong with chocolate. There is nothing wrong with eggs. There is nothing wrong with rabbits, and no, they don’t lay eggs.
There is nothing wrong with Easter, but we do not celebrate it because:
Easter is a celebration based on the idea the Prophet Isa was Allah’s son, who Allah allowed to be killed for our sins. Easter is a celebration of him coming back to life again.
Depending on how old your child is, you may need to break it down further.
Allah Created the sun, Allah is not a person whose eyes can’t even look directly at the sun. Allah Created space, Allah is not a person who can’t survive in space. Allah Created fire, Allah is not a person who cannot even touch fire. Allah is not a person, He does not have children as people do. Prophet Jesus [alayis] was a messenger of Allah, not a child of Allah.
Allah is also the Most-Merciful, Most-Forgiving, and All-Powerful. When we make mistakes by ourselves, we say sorry to Allah and try our best to do better. If we make mistakes all together, we do not take the best-behaved person from among us and then punish him or her in our place.
Allah is Justice Himself. He is The Kindest, Most Merciful, Most Forgiving Being in the entire universe. He always was, and always will be capable of forgiving us. No one needed to die in order for Allah to forgive anyone.
If your teacher failed the best student in the class so that the rest of the students could pass, that would not be fair, even if that student had offered that. When people say that Allah sacrificed his own son so that we could be forgiven, they are accusing Allah of really unfair things, even if they seem to think it’s a good thing.
Even if they’re celebrating it with chocolate.
We simply do not believe what is celebrated on Easter. That is why we do not celebrate Easter.
So what do we believe?
Walk your child through Surah Ikhlas, there are four lines and you can use four of their fingers.
- Allah is One.
- Allah doesn’t need anything from anyone.
- He was not born, and nor was anyone born of Him. Allah is no one’s child, and no one is Allah’s child
- There is nothing like Allah in the universe
Focus on what we know about Allah, and then move on to other truths as well.
- Christians should absolutely celebrate Christian holidays. We are happy for them.
- We do not celebrate Christian holidays, because we do not accept what they’re celebrating.
- We are very happy for our neighbors and hope they have a nice time.
When your child asks you about things like Christmas, Easter, Valentines, and Halloween, they’re not asking you to change religions. They’re asking you for the chance to participate in the joy of treats, decorations, parties, and doing things with their peers.
You can provide them these things when you up your halal holiday game. Make Ramadan in your home a whole month of lights, people, and happy prayer. Make every Friday special. Make Eid amazing – buy gifts, give charity, decorate every decorat-able surface if you need to – because our children have no cause to feel deprived by being Muslim.
If your holidays tend to be boring, that’s a cultural limitation, not a religious one. And if you feel like it’s not fair because other religions just have more holidays than we do, remember this:
- Your child starting the Quran can be a celebration
- Your child finishing the Quran can be a celebration
- Your child’s first fast can be a celebration
- Your child wearing hijab can be a celebration
- Your child starting to pray salah can be a celebration
- Your children can sleep over for supervised qiyaam nights
- You can celebrate whatever you want, whenever you want, in ways that are fun and halal and pleasing to Allah.
We have a set number of religious celebrations, but there is no limit on how many personal celebrations we choose to have in our lives and families. Every cause we have for gratitude can be an opportunity to see family, eat together, dress up, and hang shiny things from other things, and I’m not talking about throwing money at the problem – I’m talking about making the effort for its solution.
It is easy to celebrate something when your friends, neighbors, and local grocery stores are doing it too. That’s probably why people of many religions – and even no religion – celebrate holidays they don’t believe in. That’s not actually an excuse for it though, and as parents, it’s our responsibility to set the right example for our children.
Making and upholding our own standards is how we live, not only in terms of our holidays, but in how we eat, what we wear, and the way we swim upstream for the sake of Allah. We don’t go with the flow, and teaching our children not to celebrate the religious holidays of other religions just to fit in is only one part of the lesson.
The other part is to extend the right to religious freedom – and religious celebration – to Muslims too. When you teach your children that everyone has a right to their religious holidays, include Muslims too. When you make a big deal out of Ramadan include your non-Muslim friends and neighbors too, not just because it’s good dawah, but because being able to share your joy with others helps make it feel more mainstream.
Your Muslim children can give their non-Muslim friends Eid gifts. You can take Eid cookies to your non-Muslim office, make Ramadan jars. You can have Iftar parties for people who don’t fast. Decorate your house for Ramadan, and send holiday cards out on your holidays.
You can enjoy the elements of celebration that are common to us all without compromising on your aqeedah, and by doing so, you can teach your children that they don’t have to hide their religious holidays from the people who don’t celebrate them. No one has to. And you can teach your children to respect the religions of others, even while disagreeing with them.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are bound by a common thread, and there is much we come together on. Where the threads separate though, is still a cause for celebration. Religious tolerance is part of our faith, and recognizing the rights of others to celebrate – or abstain from celebration – is how we celebrate our differences.
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